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Landscape No-No

Have you ever driven past a landscape that had some problems with it?  As a horticulturist and landscape consultant, my attention diverts whenever I see ‘Landscape No-No’s’ like this one.

I recently shared the photo of the landscape, above, on my Facebook page and invited people to identify three things wrong with the landscape.  I received a lot of comments including “looks like Versailles by the inept” and “shrubs arranged like funny looking ottomans spread across gravel.”  

It’s important to not that my reasons for showing examples like this aren’t to shame the homeowners. Instead, my goal is to help others to learn to identify problems and give them easy steps to correct or avoid them in the first place.

So, using this landscape as an example, let’s look at the problems and later, focus on how to solve them:

shrubs pruned the wrong way

1. Shrubs are planted too closely together.  

It’s obvious that there are too many plants in this area and the mature size of the shrubs wasn’t factored in the original design.  The types of flowering shrubs in this area – desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis),  Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica), and ‘Green Cloud’ sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) are good choices. The problem is that they are spaced too closely together and pruned the wrong way.

2. Lack of different plant types. 

As you can see, there is a tree, a couple of succulents (prickly pear cactus & yucca), and a LOT of shrubs.  However, the landscape suffers from an overabundance of shrubs.  

3. Incorrectly pruned flowering shrubs. 

These lovely, flowering shrubs have been turned into anonymous, green blobs, lacking in beauty and character.  In fact, you would have to look closely to be able to identify what each shrub is.  The problem has to do with what is missing from this landscape, which are attractive shrubs allowed to grow into their natural shapes, covered in colorful flowers.  Other problems associated with maintaining flowering shrubs this way is that it is stressful for the plant, shortens their lifespan, causes to them to use more water to regrow their leaves, and creates more maintenance.

Now that we have identified the problems, we can now look at the solutions.  I will use the landscape above as my example:

landscape-no-no-badly-pruned-shrubs

  • Remove excess shrubs.  Remove 24 of the existing 32 shrubs so that you are left with eight flowering shrubs.  To decide what shrubs to remove, learn what type of shrub they are and look up how large they are at maturity.  Then, make sure that the ones that remain have enough room to grow.  Shrubs should be places up near the house, to anchor the corners of the landscape, and flank an entry.

 

  • Severely prune back remaining shrubs.  One of the things I love about most shrubs is that they have a ‘restart button’ where much of the damage that has been done due to excessive pruning can be reversed.  Severe renewal pruning entails pruning back shrubs to approximately 1 1/2 feet tall and wide. You’ll have nothing left but woody branches and little to no leaves.  However, this stimulates plants to produce new, healthy growth. This type of pruning should be done in spring.  The key is to keep hedge trimmers away from your newly pruned shrubs forever.  Any pruning should be done using hand pruners, loppers, and pruning saws.  This will work with most shrubs except for a few that were in declining health.

Which one would you rather have? Learn how to maintain shrubs the right way in the desert garden in my popular shrub pruning workshop.

 

  • Incorporate lower-growing plants such as groundcovers and succulents.  A well-designed landscape has plants with varying heights, including those at ground level.  For the landscape above, I’d add a few boulders and plant some gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida) and twin-flower agave (Agave geminiflora) alongside them.  Other ideas for low-growing succulents include ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, Moroccan mound, and artichoke agave.  Flowering groundcovers would also look nice like angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), and sandpaper verbena (Glandularia rigida).  I like to use damianita, trailing lantana, and penstemon for color at lower heights.
Texas sage shrub with natural shape

Attractive desert landscape with room for plants to grow

Here is a snapshot of a landscape area at the Desert Botanical Garden where plants have room to grow and are allowed to grow into their natural shape and form.

Transforming the problematic landscape shown earlier, and others like it isn’t difficult, and the results are dramatic.  What you are left with is a beautiful landscape filled with healthy plants that use less water and needs little maintenance.

Are you familiar with Texas sage, also referred to as Texas ranger?

 
If you live in the Southwest, you have undoubtedly seen these beautiful shrubs.
 
Believe it or not, these purple flowering beauties are a fuss-free plant.  
 
Unfortunately, some people over prune them…
 
 
The one on the left has been pruned into a ‘ball’ while the one on the right hasn’t been pruned as severely.
 
Want to learn more about this native shrub and how to care for it properly?  Check out my latest plant profile for Houzz.com

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take another photo of a landscape I passed by in a neighborhood where I had just finished up a landscape consultation.


Sadly, I often see examples of truly ‘interesting’ or should I say ‘bad’ pruning.  I drove by this landscape and then made a U-turn so that I could take a quick photo…

 
I don’t know about you, but these Texas sage shrubs look like mushrooms, don’t you think?
 
Sadly, pruning these beautiful flowering shrubs this way, robs them of their flowers, increases maintenance, creates dead wood and shortens their life.
 
While there are quite a few shrubs that take well to repeated formal pruning – doing this to flowering shrubs should be avoided.  
 
I must admit that I have seen Texas sage and other flowering shrubs pruned into many different shapes…
 
But, let me be frank – shrubs aren’t meant to be cupcakes, frisbees or gumdrops.
 
How about you?  
 
What interesting shapes have you seen flowering shrubs pruned into?
If you are tired of the time and money it takes to maintain flowering shrubs the ‘wrong’ way. I invite you to join me in my online shrub pruning workshop where I will teach you the right way to prune. Imagine being able to prune with confidence and have a landscape filled with beautiful, flowering shrubs? It’s much easier than you think. 

A few months ago, I was asked to help re-design part of our church’s parking lot landscape.  There was nothing really wrong with it except for some old plants and some dying Chinese Elm trees.

So, I created a design that switched out the dying Chinese Elm trees, which don’t do all that well in parking lots, with Sissoo (Dalbergia sissoo) trees.  I also switched out some of the missing Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) shrubs as well.

I ordered the trees and shrubs and we were all prepared for an all-church work day.  I showed up bright and early (I think 8:00 is early for a Saturday, don’t you?), and met up with a 16-year old boy scout, who was earning community hours for his badge.


He was a very nice boy and we started placing all of the trees and shrubs.  Then we started digging….


Yes, I dug holes too….although it has been awhile since I’ve had to dig so many.

We worked on digging holes for the shrubs.  My ‘helper’ had never planted a shrub or a tree before and he watched and listened as I showed him how to do it.

I realize that most of you may know how to do this, but just in case, here is what we did.  He took pictures for me (I knew I would blog about this) – you can see his shadow in most of the photos…

First, I hit the sides of the container, to loosen the root ball from the container.

Then I spread my palm out so that I held the shrub between my thumb and fingers and then flipped the container and plant over.  I carefully pulled off the container.

The root ball was pretty healthy, it was not root bound.

I placed the shrub in our already dug hole.  **An easy tip for figuring out how deep the hole should be, is to put the entire container in the hole you have dug and see if the soil line of the plant is level with the sides of the hole (NOT the sides of the container).  You don’t want to plant too deep or too shallowly.  

My Boy Scout assistant finished planting the shrub, taking care not to pile up extra soil around the shrub.

After planting this shrub, we went on to plant more.  We took turns digging holes, but I must admit that he did more digging then I did.

I enjoyed working with him and explaining how to plant trees and shrubs.  After we had worked together for quite a few hours, he asked me, “Are you a teacher or something like that?”

I told him that I ‘teach’ people how to take care of plants.

I hope this was helpful to some of you.  I will share my tips for planting trees (we planted 6 of them), next time.

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On a personal note, I have been stuck at home the past few days.  My daughter, Gracie, is sick with an extremely contagious virus.  The sickness itself isn’t that bad, but the fact that it is easily spread is the problem.  She has to miss a week of school and will thankfully, go back on Monday.

However, I am going nowhere…..my son now has it.

So, I am spending my time writing gardening articles, knitting, blogging and doing a little gardening.  It really doesn’t sound all that bad when you think about, does it?

Do you like cupcakes?  

Do you prefer a plain cupcake with no frosting?


 Or maybe you like just a little bit of frosting….
Of course, many people like cupcakes with a thin layer of frosting on the top….
I don’t know about you, but I prefer an entire piece of cake (which is much bigger then a cupcake) with lots of frosting all over it….
How about you?

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After I walked out into my back garden this weekend and seeing my Sage shrubs in full bloom, I just couldn’t resist another post about the unfortunate practice of formerly pruning flowering shrubs into ‘cupcake’ shapes.




Of course you can read more if you like:
Flowering Shrubs Aren’t Meant To Be Cupcakes




Friday was my father-in-law’s memorial service and it was very nice.  I had fun with my two sisters this weekend, including a trip with my sister, Chicken Farmer, to our local knitting store.  I can’t believe I didn’t spend any $ there this time, but I just started a new project, which will take me awhile 😉

I hope your week is off to a great start.  My vegetable seedlings are growing and I am going to plant some shallots for the first time this week.  I am anxious to see how they will do.  

I absolutely love spring.  Some years, spring never arrives.  Sometimes spring goes missing and winter turns right into summer.  But not this year.  We have had beautiful weather and I have enjoyed being outdoors.  

But, all good things must come to an end.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I do like the summer, but you will find me inside much more often then outside.  Sometimes I wonder if some of my plants would rather be inside enjoying the air-conditioning.


Did you know that May and June are the most stressful months for plants in the desert southwest?  Well, it is.  Although the hot summer temperatures cool down in the evening, the daytime heat coupled with the extreme dryness of our climate is quite stressful for plants.  When the monsoon season arrives in July, the increased humidity and rain bring relief to the plants.

So, what is a plant to do when it cannot escape indoors from the heat?  Well, I would love to show you one example of what some shrubs do to deal with the dry heat.


To really see what I am talking about, you will need to click to enlarge the photo below…

Can you see it?  Can you tell what helps to protect the flowers from the sun?  
Hint: Look at the little hairs on the petals.
 Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) and all other Leucophyllum species have tiny hairs on their flowers, stems and their leaves, which help to deflect the sun’s rays.  It is these tiny hairs that give the leaves a gray-green color.
Drive down any street in the Desert Southwest and you will see these beautiful shrubs throughout the residential landscape.
Even though I have worked as a horticulturist for over 10 years, I am still amazed at how plants adapt to their environment. 
By the way, you may be thinking that I took these close-up photos to show the tiny hairs covering the blossoms, but actually, my goal was to show how beautiful the flower was.  It was only after I downloaded the pictures that I saw the tiny hairs.  
It makes you wonder what else you may find just by taking close-up pictures of plants….

Aren’t these shrubs beautiful?

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)
 
Thunder Cloud Sage (Leucophyllum candidum ‘Thunder Cloud’)
‘Rio Bravo’ Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae ‘Rio Bravo’)
You would think that the beauty of these shrubs, in flower, would be enough for people to stop pruning them into absurd shapes, but sadly, this is not the case. There is an epidemic of truly horrible pruning that affects not only Texas Sage (Leucophyllum species), but also Cassia (Senna species), Fairy Duster (Calliandra species) and even Oleander.
I dedicated an entire post to the unfortunate shaping of many of these beautiful shrubs into ‘cupcakes’, which you can view here Read The Plant Label Or You Might End Up With Cupcakes. I had not planned on creating a similar post, until last weekend when I was driving along, just minding my own business and I saw an entire line of shrubs pruned like this…
Okay, it should be rather obvious, but I will say it just the same, 
“Do not prune your shrubs into the shape of a ‘frisbee’.
I kept driving and found even more examples of truly awful pruning.  Sadly, all within a 5-minute drive of my house.
I call this ‘pillbox’ pruning.
These Texas Sage & Cassia shrubs were located across the street from the ‘frisbee’ shrubs.
An attempt at creating a ‘sculpture’?
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’)
 A second attempt at creating a sculpture?
 
I have no idea what they were trying to do with these Texas Sage, a sculpture of some sort?  Honestly, when I first saw them, words failed me – I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing and believe me, I have seen a lot of pruning disasters.

Learn how to prune shrubs the right way

 
Now on to some of my favorite ‘cupcake’ examples:
  
    
An entire line of ‘cupcakes’.
‘White Cloud’ Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘White Cloud’) 

 

Do you think they use a ‘level’ to make the tops perfectly flat?
I honestly wouldn’t put it past them.
You can see the dead area on the top, which is caused from this shrub being sheared repeatedly.
 
 This dead growth is caused by lack of sunlight.  Repeated shearing (hedge-trimming) keeps sunlight from reaching the interior of the shrub.  
As a result, branches begin to die.
Well, I had seen enough of really awful pruning and was on my way home and I drove down the street and saw this poor shrub:
 
 Now if you look closely, you can see a light layer of gray-green leaves, which really don’t begin to cover the ugly, dense branching that has been caused by years of repeated shearing.


I actually like topiary, but not when done to a Texas Sage.
Some people prune up their shrubs so that they can clean up the leaves underneath more easily.
Now, I am not against formal pruning, when performed on the right plants.  But, it is not attractive when done on flowering, desert plants and it is also unhealthy for the shrubs themselves and contributes to their early death in many cases.  Add to that the fact that it greatly increases your maintenance costs due to repeated pruning and having to replace them more frequently.
 
Now if you have shrubs that look like any of these pruning disasters, don’t panic! They can be fixed in most cases.
Now, why would anyone want to remove the flower buds from your shrubs by shearing, 
when you can have flowers like this?
So for now, this is the end of horrible pruning examples. If you are tired of seeing beautiful shrubs pruned into unnatural shapes, I invite you to check out my popular online shrub pruning workshop where I will teach you how to maintain flowering shrubs by pruning twice a year or less.

Has this happened to you?  You walk through the nursery, and you spot “the perfect plant.”   You can envision it in your yard and know precisely where you will put it.  


After coming home and planting it, you pat yourself on the back for finding such a great plant.  Time passes, and your beautiful plant starts to grow, and grow and grow.

Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ (Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’) 1-gallon
Approximately 1 ft. Wide and tall. 
 
 
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ pruned like ‘cupcakes.’
 
Fast forward a year or two now it looks bad unless you constantly prune making it high maintenance.  Now your beautiful plant no longer looks so lovely (above and below).  It now looks more like a ‘cupcake’ because you have had to prune it back to keep it small enough for your space.  


No more flowers, no nice foliage…

More ‘cupcakes.’

Unfortunately, there is an epidemic in our area of homeowners and landscapers who prune flowering shrubs so that they end up looking like ‘cupcakes’ or ‘poodles’ just so that they fit into their allotted space.  More about that in another post…
Texas Sage ‘Green Cloud’ in its natural shape.
They can grow up to 8 ft. high and wide but can be easily maintained at a more moderate 4′ x 4′.
Texas Sage Flower 
Also with flowers this beautiful, why plant it somewhere where you will have to prune them off so that it can fit?  
 
So our lesson is…. be sure to READ THE LABEL of plants before you buy them, which should list how large they will grow, along with the correct sun exposure.  If it’s not listed, ask the nursery salesperson for this information, or use your smartphone to get the information.  


Then you can go home and place your new “perfect plant” where they will have plenty of room to ‘stretch out’ and dazzle you with their beauty. 


**Allowing enough room for plants is just part of what it takes to grow attractive shrubs.  Pruning is the next part of the equation.  Click here for guidelines on how to properly prune your flowering shrubs.